Today’s Paleo post is not about actual food or recipes, but about an aspect of eating Paleo that can easily be overlooked. While you are choosing foods that are nourishing, complete and sustaining, give some thought to choosing food tools that are also sustainable and substantive. Build your evolutionary nutrition kitchen from the ground up. Put the horse in front of the cart. Don’t try to close the barn door after the horse is out. OK-no more horse cliches. It is important to remember that at the heart of the motivation for most of us to follow a specific approach to eating is health and longevity. Sure, there are the short-term goals of leaner body compositions or performance in a sport, but somewhere, in with all those flash-in-the-pan goals is a desire to be as well in body and mind as possible. In particular, if you choose to follow an evolutionary diet template, like Paleo or a Weston A. Price template, you must care about more than just how you look in a sports bra. As you sort out your kitchen cupboards and refrigerator to reflect your wise and healthy eating habits, take a look at what you cook in, cook with and what containers you use to store or transport your food.
Your kitchen tools and food containers are not just for looks. They are some of the most basic of human tools, the earliest of technologies. Bows and arrows were not the first technology. Containers and digging sticks were earlier. The gatherer came first, not the hunter. When we talk about getting our grass-fed bison, wild-caught salmon and locally-raised chickens we should first talk about what we cook our vegetables in, what we store our root vegetables in and what we use to transfer the food from bowl to mouth. Our kitchen tools and food containers have become a pawn in the hands of food marketers, interior decorators – a piece of the constant consumerist crap. This is incredibly unfortunate because the truth is that the most sustainable, healthy, environmentally-green, Paleo-esque kitchen ware is the cheapest, most sustainable, most Dumpster-Diver friendly swag out there. So, let’s break this down a little to get back to reality, as my favorite rapper says.
The pots and pans that possess your food are the foundation of your diet. The longer you remain a part of the Paleo-eating world, the more you will likely become interested in the big issues surrounding our food supply such as access to local foods and chemical-free food, or perhaps you were interested in those issues first and they led you to explore an evolutionary-style diet. Either way, the containers that you place your food in are a part of the process. You don’t need to purchase expensive designer containers from high end kitchen stores. Wood, metal, fabric and glass are all around you. They are cheap, clean, reusable and do not leach chemicals into your hard-earned, lovingly prepared food. Let’s work through some of the concerns about ditching the plastic containers, the plastic spoons and the paper towels.
Glass is breakable. Yes, glass containers are breakable. All good things in life deserve some care. Unbreakable things encourage us to be careless. Carelessness is not a quality to cultivate whether in relationships or food choices. My children and I have been putting our food in glass containers since they were toddlers. We have always lived in homes with ceramic tile or concrete floors, so breakage is an issue. We also spent years of our lives out in the woods, at parks, and at friends’ homes while we homeschooled and we packed A LOT of travel foods in glass. I have learned some unpleasant lessons, so here are my tips:
- Use Ball or Mason Canning Jars. These are incredibly sturdy glass jars that withstand boiling liquids (unless they are cracked). When they do break, they do not shatter into tiny splinters like lower quality glass. They break into chunks, with sharp edges for sure, but clean up is pretty easy. These jars are easily found by the case at most department and hardware stores in several sizes and for cheap. The tiny ones are indispensable for kids, as are the quart wide mouths and the half gallon wide mouths. The pint-sizes are perfect drinking glasses. They come with the two-piece metal lids, but search around for the screw-on plastic lids. These don’t rust or bend, they are more leak proof, and they are easier for kids to get on and off. Every leftover in my house goes in these jars. They go to school in lunch boxes too. I break these things all the time because I set them on the pilot light of my gas stove and forget them. When I remember that multi-tasking is not Zen, it is when I hear a loud crack. All that happens is the jar has split in two or three pieces and I have a mess on my stove top. Contrast this to when I once dropped a cheap glass bottle of olive oil on my tile floor. My toddlers and I spent the rest of the day outside waiting for Daddy to come home from work so I could clean up the life threatening mess!!
- Visit your local thrift store. Every thrift store has heavy, 1950s diner-quality mugs, bowls and plates for about .25 cents a piece. Do not take your favorite matching dish sets on outings. Don’t let your kids or your careless relatives use them in your tiled dining room either. I have a shelf outside in my back yard with a stack of thrift store plates and bowls. When we break one, we go out back and get another one. I keep a couple in the trunk of my car too for impromptu picnics. Again, when these heavy ceramics break, there is very little danger of glass splinters. When you have babies and toddlers these are great ways for them to learn to be careful without any Mama Trauma (again my favorite rapper) regarding broken dishes.
- Cooking in glass can be great. Pyrex is the best invention ever. Glass baking dishes and casserole dishes are totally inert. You can put acidic foods like tomatoes or lemon in them. You can burn on any number of chicken wings, and with an overnight soak it all scrubs off with no damage to the pot or pan. Pyrex is a little pricey at department stores, but thrift stores are an endless supply and a nice soak in boiling water is all that has to happen for a fresh start.
Metal containers and pots and pans require a bit of caution. Non-stick surfaces have no place in the Evolutionary Kitchen. First of all, if you cooked in the appropriate amount of butter, lard or coconut oil you wouldn’t need a non-stick pan. Second of all, those surfaces are a dynamite stick of chemicals. Why shell out for organic foods and then cook them in a stew of off-gassed chemicals? Cheap metal pans can also be a source of health-hazardous metals like copper and aluminum which typically are already built up to unhealthy concentrations in our bodies. There will be moments in your life when you can afford, or ask for as gifts, long-lasting, high quality metal cook ware. My favorites are:
- Cast iron. Obviously. I would live in a cabin on a mountain top in West Virginia if I could, so cast iron cookware is part and parcel of my life. There are a few considerations with using this old school cookware that apply mostly to those of you with germ phobia and fat phobia. Cast iron is meant to be “seasoned” which means creating an impervious layer of fat on the pan. Think of your favorite mountain man cooking his drop biscuits in bacon drippings on cast iron. The fat creates a barrier between the food and the pan. Don’t over scrape them and don’t use soap. Keep the heat low and even. No acids like tomato. The big kettles are good for non-acidic soups only. Strangely, there is a group of folks who should not cook in cast iron-men with high blood iron levels. Because men do not menstruate, their blood is with them for long periods of time. If they build up high iron levels it can damage the blood vessels. You might be surprised to know this, but in our world it is actually kind of easy for men to have iron levels that are too high. Most commercial breakfast cereals, multi-vitamins and other “fortified” foods like bread have iron added. If you are a man, you might consider asking your health care provider to check your iron status next time you have blood work performed.
- Ceramic-coated cast iron. I have two pots of ceramic-coated cast iron. They are expensive. I have had them both for decades. You will feel like Julia Childs when you cook in them if that helps. These are the best of every world. They are heavy and thick, so they heat evenly and do not burn your food. They are inert, so that you can cook acidic foods like tomato soup. You do need to be a bit careful scraping them with metal utensils or cleaning with an abrasive scrubber because once the ceramic is scratched it is not as good. If you are the type of person to register for gifts when you get married, I suggest your entire gift registry be composed of Lodge Cast Iron (making American heirloom cast iron cookware since 1896) and Calphalon Enamel-Coated Cookware. If you waste your wedding gifts on anything else you deserve to serve a dozen inedible Thanksgiving dinners to your friends and relatives.
In general, other metal cooking utensils and cook ware can be limited. I have a good metal spatula, mostly to use on the grill. A couple of heavy metal cookie sheets are nice, and I usually cover them with parchment paper to avoid scraping up any metal onto my food. Stainless steel strainers and sieves are handy. Get yourself an enameled colander though, instead of a plain metal one because many fruits and vegetables are acidic and will leach metals from an unprotected metal surface.
There is a little cult-popularity right now in Japanese-style metal food containers. These are expensive and, in our experience, the lids don’t stay on all that well. We also live in Arizona so ice packs are a vital part of transporting food and these metal containers do not have ice-pack capability. We have a couple of pieces of metal containers that we use for dry snacks, but mostly I think these are a waste of money.
Wood is beautiful. Call me foo-foo if you must, but wooden bowls and spoons are spiritually superior, and that results in superior food and eating. A wooden salad bowl and some wooden spoons, as well as wooden cutting boards, are the pinnacle of magnificent kitchen works. These don’t need to be washed (unless you let your fruit go bad and get infested by fruit flies…so, I’ve heard). You simply wipe them down. Here in Tucson, Arizona we have a local craftsman who makes small wooden spoons for eating and sells them at the Farmer’s Markets. You know that a real person created your implements. This is akin to the difference between a fast food burger made by a skanky teenage metal head who hates the world, and one made from grass-fed beef raised a few miles away and ground fresh in your kitchen. Personally, I have never been able to afford the gorgeous wooden kitchen implements seen in most kitchen stores. I have mine because I go to local craft fairs and I ask if they have seconds, or bowls or spoons that don’t look pretty. My sister gave me my wooden salad servers as a gift one year. I treasure them. Wood needs to be cared for if you live in a dry environment. Oil it regularly with a beeswax-based mix, or an oil made for wooden kids’ toys like Three BEEautiful Bees.
Pottery is a must. Be careful purchasing thrift store pottery because sometimes, items from other countries do not have food-safe glazes. Pottery glazes can be incredibly toxic. However, most local art stores, galleries, craft shows and art schools have sales on a regular basis where you can purchase handmade, food-safe items for cheap!! If you aren’t sure if a pottery piece is safe for regular usage, find a local ceramic artist and ask them. Handmade, local pottery frequently comes in small unusual sizes that are very kid-friendly. The down-side of handmade stuff is that when it breaks, you feel badly. Luckily, creation is continual. Artists are everywhere among us. Support them. It doesn’t have to be expensive.
Finally, linen or cotton napkins are useful. We keep a big pile of them, all found at thrift stores for .50 cents each right near the table. The kids get one in their lunch box, we use them for everything. No paper towels or napkins ever need to enter the front door. Again, I think that a reusable, real item encourages kids to notice what they are doing. We aren’t super germ-phobic here, so we reuse the cloth stuff until it is actually dirty (our washer pours the water onto the trees in the back yard, and clean wet laundry gets hung on the line to air dry).
Choosing your cooking tools, your serving ware, your eating utensils, and everything associated with your food storage, preparation, serving and eating is as much a part of your committment to good health and wellness as the food itself. Perhaps more importantly, the pots, pans and dishes are a part of the feeling, the experience, and the memory of eating. We all know that food is love. Food is joy. Food is care. Food is life. Serving food to others and serving food to yourself is one of the highest expression of love and care we humans have in our power. Show care in every aspect.